An unnamed but high-ranking Russian space official said yesterday that a final decision on the fate of the Mir space station will be made on July 2. In addition, he said that Russian space sector leaders had decided to maintain their public silence on the implications of the Mir decision until that date so as to avoid embarrassing the government. But the official suggested that a failure by the government to come up with new funding to finance Mir’s safe re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere would compel space industry leaders to go public with their warnings. Those warnings concern the potentially dire consequences of an uncontrolled descent to earth by the 130-ton space station. (Itar-Tass, June 29)
Yesterday’s remarks come in the wake of very public calls last week by space industry leaders for additional funding. Yuri Semenov, head of the Energia group that operates Mir, charged on June 25 that the government has promised but has repeatedly failed to transfer funds for the troubled space station’s upkeep. Semenov, who met with Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko on June 26 to discuss Mir, warned that without new funding the space station will have to be abandoned. The consequences, he said, could be disastrous. Energia has proposed lowering Mir gradually and controlling its re-entry into the atmosphere so that much of the station burns up and the rest falls harmlessly in the ocean. In order to do that, however, Russian space officials say they must both keep the station manned and use visits by cargo ships to move Mir bit by bit into the correct re-entry orbit. Funding shortages, they say, are making this approach impossible. (UPI, Itar-Tass, June 25; Reuter, June 26)
Mir’s problems are, in part, a result of the government’s financial crunch and in part, the consequence of a shift in the Russian space industry’s priorities from Mir to the new International Space Station (ISS). U.S. space officials, concerned over delays in Russia’s construction projects for the ISS, have been among those most strongly pressuring Moscow to turn its attention from Mir to the ISS. Meanwhile, the Russian space establishment has tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to make up the shortfall in government funding by earning income from commercial satellite launches for foreign countries and by charging for sending foreign astronauts to Mir.
Several cosmonauts are now involved in an effort to start up a public campaign aimed at raising funding for Mir by portraying the station as a symbol of Russia’s national pride. They describe Mir as a unique space research facility that should continue operation beyond its currently scheduled demise in late 1999. They also say that once Mir has fallen from the sky Russia will cease to be a major power in space. Cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov called the planned destruction of Mir a “sin,” and complained that after its demise, Russia and the world as a whole would be left without space research until the ISS begins operation. (Itar-Tass, Reuter, June 26)
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